It was 6.30 am and my old Vauxhall Astra seemed just as reluctant to start up this dark December morning as I, its owner. Eventually, the old girl spluttered into life. Our breath vaporising before us, my wife and I jumped into the car and switched the heater to full. And as we drove away from our silent road where our neighbours peacefully slept, I shuddered. I wanted to stop the car, turn around and return to the warm depths of the bed I had been so cruelly compelled to leave, a new born thrust out of the warm cocooning womb into a chaotic, alien world.
I had been instructed to arrive at the hospital at the ungodly hour of 7.30 am, a day of anaesthesia and painkillers ahead of me, and the reason no doubt for my hesitancy on this crisp morning. Casting a final look back towards the quiet houses, I told myself that by the end of the day my ordeal would be over, soon I’d be safely back in suburbia tucked up in bed. Funny how, when faced with such days, we suddenly value the mundane and the ordinary. It might sound melodramatic but I felt ill-at-ease, a condemned man at the start of his final day on earth.
Driving through hamlets and past scattered farmhouses, we marvelled at the brilliance of the vermillion sky emanating from the many greenhouses which abound in this part of Lancashire. ‘The sky, it’s red!’ I was thinking about Eileen Shaughnessy, Orwell’s first wife. She’d been admitted to hospital for a minor gynaecological procedure in 1945 and had died on the operating table. Her final letter, written minutes before the procedure, is hauntingly fatalistic. Mrs Orwell seemingly knew she would not survive the operation.
Set in own its expansive grounds, the hospital at which we arrived is classified as ‘private.’ Dawn had not yet broken but this felt more like a county club hotel with its duck pond, landscaped gardens and ample private parking bereft of those infernal meters encountered at NHS sites. A nurse greeted us at the door and escorted me to my first-floor room. It was all so seamless, so smooth. The room itself was spacious, coming with its own dazzling, pristine white en-suite which looked as if it had been appointed especially for me. ‘So, this is what £2.5k gets you,’ thought I. Not bad.
Actually, I’m not a great fan of luxury. I prefer chilly bathrooms and cold showers – legacy of a deprived childhood that has formed adulthood preferences. Heated towel rails, fluffy bathrobes, not my thing at all but I could still appreciate this set-up. The nurses were falling over themselves. When I declined their offer to switch on the wall-mounted plasma they seemed surprised. ‘Really? You don’t watch television?’
So I lay there on a luxurious mattress swathed in warm blankets watched over by a legion of nurses. It had cost an arm and leg, all this star-treatment and I was still rather agitated that I’d been forced down this road. I’d had a stark choice: join an ever-expanding NHS waiting list which, thanks to our leaders’ decisions these past 18 months may never again catch up with itself and which could mean waiting several years for my operation; or I could choose to go private. It was a no-brainer: fellow sufferers of vasomotor rhinitis will know what I mean.
I waited and waited. It got to lunchtime and, having not eaten since 8pm the previous day, hunger pangs were kicking in. It transpired that the anaesthetist had been caught up in an incident on the M57. We were running late. I know this because a gowned chap arrived at my bedside obviously flustered. ‘Name, date-of-birth . . .’ In his haste, he hadn’t even introduced himself. Was I right in assuming him to be the anaesthetist? Yes, I was. He then went on to explain about the accident.
Inside the ante-room, the time around 1pm, I thought again about Eileen. These past couple of years of increasing government authoritarianism must have taken their toll because there was a small part of me that envied Mrs Orwell. She went to sleep and never woke. And as a nurse pressed an oxygen mask over my face, I wondered whether I might never wake. It would be such a pleasant way out, here in this white, heavenly theatre surrounded by medics in their gowns, a ritualistic setting if ever there was one.
When Keats heard his nightingale singing, the perfection of the tranquillity moved him to write that he had been ‘half in love with easeful death.’ I know how he felt. if I myself had not regained consciousness I would, I confess, not have been that bothered. Had I not a wife and little doggie to care about I might even have begged the medics to procure such a situation. The post-Covid world so eagerly awaited by the technocrats and hardcore ideologues promises to be the stuff of which nightmares are made. It’s a world I have little interest in. As for me, ‘I’m out’ as they used to say on Dragons’ Den.
Anyway, I woke up after the procedure disorientated and maybe, just maybe a little regretful that an opportunity had been wasted. As I watched the medics go about their business I thought about Hardy’s poem ‘A Wasted Illness’, which chronicles a serious illness the poet endured from which he came round oddly dispirited, and which seemed to capture my own sentiments:
Through vaults of pain, Enribbed and wrought with groins of ghastliness, I passed, and garish spectres moved my brain To dire distress. And hammerings, And quakes, and shoots, and stifling hotness, blent With webby waxing things and waning things As on I went. "Where lies the end To this foul way?" I asked with weakening breath. Thereon ahead I saw a door extend - The door to death. It loomed more clear: "At last!" I cried. "The all-delivering door!" And then, I knew not how, it grew less near Than theretofore. And back slid I Along the galleries by which I came, And tediously the day returned, and sky, And life--the same. And all was well: Old circumstance resumed its former show, And on my head the dews of comfort fell As ere my woe. I roam anew, Scarce conscious of my late distress . . . And yet Those backward steps through pain I cannot view Without regret. For that dire train Of waxing shapes and waning, passed before, And those grim aisles, must be traversed again To reach that door.
‘And tediously the day returned, and sky, And life--the same.’ I can identify with that. Dying can be a long, tedious process as Hardy knew. Maybe, when the opportunity for a ‘good’ death presents as it had done for the sage of Dorchester during what appears to have been a serious fever, might we not grasp it with both hands?
Although not conventionally religious, I thought about waking in another dimension to be greeted by my in-laws, my best friend and departed pets, Snoopy, Tina and Danny, their tails wagging in a joyful reunion. And I imagined looking back ‘down there’ and feeling profoundly sorry for those people living under this tyranny, forced to live under the edicts of individuals lost to the dark, from Blair to Johnson through to our esteemed ‘journalists’ of the BBC. What an arid, soulless world they’re trying and succeeding in creating.
Maybe it was the anaesthetic that brought these thoughts teeming forth – I don’t know. Maybe they’ve been there all the while waiting to be uncorked. Later that afternoon, back in my comfy bed trussed and bandaged up, the nurses checked my pulse and blood pressure, exchanging worrying glances as they did. My heart was racing and my oxygen level very low. My body was pulsing, throbbing and seemingly there was nothing to be done. They kept popping back at 30 minute intervals. The registrar was called. He frowned. Whispers.
And all through this mini-drama I sat there serene in my bed. Que sera sera. Would I return home that night or any time? Did it all end here, this strange eventful history? It wasn’t until 9 o’clock that I was finally discharged from my fluffy cocoon. Life would go on then, for a while longer. An opportunity missed. So, like Hardy, ‘I roam anew.’ But whereas TH was roaming in a familiar landscape, the future facing you and I dear reader, is one humanity has never before faced.